America, I Love You, So Listen Up

I am an American currently living in Indonesia, on the opposite side of the globe from my home country.  I sent my absentee ballot in weeks ago, and on November 9th I woke up as people in the United States were still going to the polls, and I spent my morning and afternoon watching the numbers come in until eventually the new president-elect of the United States was announced.

I am a farm girl from rural Central New York, who studied English Education at a liberal arts college, and who has lived in Indonesia since graduating with my undergraduate degree, teaching English and engaging in what most people call “soft diplomacy.”

I am a mixed bag of backgrounds and experiences and I have used all of them in whatever ways I thought I was qualified to do.  I wrote blog posts and slam poems about how I hope my experience here in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation would shape how people considered this election.  I tried to reason with family members and friends from home over Facebook and in person while I was in the U.S. this summer (though New York State may have gone to Hillary, my county voted 57% Trump), because I know from growing up in these areas that it is those personal connections that help people to listen to new ideas, and I thought that maybe because I from there, people might listen to me.  I posted long-form think pieces to my Facebook wall and sent critical videos to friends from college who were seeing a one-sided view of the people who raised me and in many ways created the social-justice oriented person I am today (my college education shaped it as well, but it cannot claim it in full as it would like to), because someone once told me the people with college degrees are more likely to read and listen to long texts.

And through it all, I listened.  Though I have a slightly more complex background, I knew I could not rely merely on that to take the pulse of the nation.  And so I read all the articles Facebook friends posted no matter how biased those articles were (on both sides), so that I could see where the far right and far left seemed to be standing.  I read political theories and commentaries from all sorts of sources.  I fact-checked.  I talked to people.  I read.  I listened.

I shared and discussed what I had learned.  I thought that by listening, asking questions, and trying to use the voice of reason on both sides, I was doing the right thing.

I cast my vote, and then waited for the rest of my country (or at least those who would turn out on election day), to do the same.  And then I was told that in January, Donald Trump would become the new president of my country.

I won’t say I wasn’t disappointed, sad, and angry: throughout the election I clung to my stubborn optimism and insisted that Americans would make the right choice, the kind choice.  That is what I told my friends here, who were horrified at this new side of the U.S. they didn’t really know existed before now.  And then America allowed Donald Trump to become the president-elect.

There are a lot of reasons people have given for why Donald Trump was able to win.  Here is mine: we didn’t listen.

If you voted for Trump, because you actually believe in the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic vitriol that defined his campaign, I don’t really know what to say to you.  Did you listen to anyone at all, ever?

If you voted for Trump because you are tired of a broken system which seems to fail almost all ordinary Americans, okay, I hear you.  But did you not listen to the voices of the folks who are black, Latino/a, Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQA*, etc. who were scared to leave their homes even before he was actually elected, and who are even more scared now that he is the president-elect?  Don’t tell me that he didn’t commit all these atrocities as an individual (though he has committed enough of his own): the language of his campaign has had a powerful effect on the language and attitudes of even schoolchildren.  He has given so many (dare I say all) of the poisonous -isms that are still in the waters of America a platform to stand on.  If you knew all of this, then when you voted for Donald Trump, you said with your ballot that that was okay.  If you didn’t know this, it is because you didn’t listen.

If you did not vote for Trump and you are now blaming “racist, rural, poor whites” for the reason he won, you are not listening to the exit polls, who tell us that those whose income is less than 50,000 a year were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton or a third party.  If you did not vote for Trump and refuse to recognize the broken system that may have led some in desperation to do so, and instead insist on referring to them as “the deplorables,” you are not listening to a group that feels ignored and disenfranchised, no matter who they voted for.  Is there racism and xenophobia imbedded into this particular brand of disenfranchisement?  Are the people they are voting for probably not interested in their well-being?  Yes and yes.  But this is part of a greater classist system that has existed for far longer than this election, and calling people names is not the way to fix this system.  If you continue to respond to this highly problematic population by painting them in one color and refusing to see them complexly, you are not listening.

If you voted third party, I understand that you want to be part of a system that allows more than two options, but this was not the time or the way to try to make that system a reality.  I know you didn’t want to be “responsible” for letting someone you could not agree with become president.  But in the end that’s not how this system allows your vote to work.  You were told this, and you too did not listen to the real fears of minority groups and therefore allowed this man into office.

If you critique the third-party voters without also recognizing that the two-party system is messed up and people should have been able to vote that way without sacrificing the respectability of our country, you are also not listening.

If you did not vote because you were protesting an election wherein no one seemed to care about you, or because you felt that you had not truly viable options available to you, I am so sorry that you feel as hurt as you do.  But the stakes were too high, and people were saying this, and you did not listen.

If you are treating those who did not vote as though they are the end of all democracy, if you are in any way criticizing the effect of their non-vote without also acknowledging their pain and realizing that, if you did vote, you most definitely voted for one of the reasons they feel this level of pain, then you are not listening.

If you voted for Clinton, like myself, we don’t get a free pass.  If you were “with her” and you feel fully confident that she was absolutely the best person to be the next president of the United States, you also were not listening.  There is no denying that Hilary had a resume of experience that made her much more qualified than any of the candidates.  There is also no denying that, in the Trump vs. Clinton dichotomy, she appeared to a huge number of people to be the “lesser of two evils.”  If you voted for her and did not note the ways in which she also, though to a much lesser degree, dehumanized parts of the American population, then you did not listen.  If you do not recognize that she stood to leave several minority groups behind if she was elected, then you did not listen.  If you do not see Hilary Clinton, as all of the candidates this election, as some level of problematic, then you did not listen.

I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I did not do so because she was all I sought for in a candidate: to be honest, I am still sad that Bernie Sanders was not an option on my ballot, as I felt he might be able to bring about real changes to a broken system.  I did not vote for her solely because I recognized that she was the least dangerous (even if she wasn’t completely harmless), to the minority groups I might not belong to but value and support, though I could not claim to have listened at all in this campaign if this did not factor in to how I cast my vote.

I voted for Hilary because along the way I began to notice that in many ways, Hilary Clinton listened too.  She was criticized for having gone back and forth on issues, but it seemed as though this was her responding to the pulse of America, in the same way I tried to respond, though on a much smaller scale.  I did not agree with Hilary on a lot of issues, and I disapproved of many of the ways she ran her campaign.  But I came to believe that she might be a leader who listened, and I put my hope, and my vote, in that.

There are some who say that Donald Trump’s acceptance speech shows that he too can listen.  I see far less evidence of that, but I pray that I am wrong.

The tale is not entirely bleak, and there are results of this election that give me hope for the future, and remind me why I still do love the place where I am from.  There are now four women of color in the senate.  Our nation’s first Somali-American legislator, Ilhan Omar, will represent Minnesota Hose District 60B.  Tulsi Gabbard became the first person to use the Bhagavad Gita to swear into her role as a congresswoman.  These small morsels lead me believe that not all is lost.

I won’t be one of those people who says that everything is going to be okay.  I will be one of those people who says that we shouldn’t give up.  I will be one of those people who says that now, more than ever, is a time for movement.  It is a time to create change which will create a more understanding United States, one that is less divided not because we have agreed to follow one extreme or the other because it is easy, but because we have changed ourselves to be more empathetic.  And to become more empathetic, we need to listen.

Of course, listening is where we need to start, but not not where we can stay forever, if we want to create real, productive change.  In many ways, I feel that I listened too much and spoke too little during this election season: recognizing that I am a small individual with little influence, there are still things I would have done differently.

There are many ideas out there for what individuals can do, especially if you were hoping for a Hillary win. I do not know yet what the right move is, nor what my own personal next move will be.  I need to re-take the pulse of America, now that it’s diet and exercise regimen has changed so drastically.  I must also consider my unique position in living abroad, and how that affects what I can do. (For now, it means I do not have the privilege to sit back and reflect to the same degree that many other white young people at home can do.  As a representative of America in a foreign country, I have to explain what happened to our friends who live across the world.  It also means I cannot physically offer protection on public transport to those who feel most threatened in this post-Trump America.)  I must consider what my own capacities are, and what I am actually capable of doing, and doing well, both right now, and in less than a year, when I will most likely return to the United States.

I will do my part.  I will take action, and raise my voice, in the way that is most appropriate to who I am and my situation.

But first, I have some listening to do.

Note: I have tried to link, when possible, to pieces I have read or videos I have watched which I think better illustrate some of these points.  Please click on these links.  Listen. 


Summer Travels Volume V: New York City

This was not my first visit to New York City, but it was my first visit to New York during the summer.  Prior to this trip, I had only visited in the autumn, or during the dead of winter.  NYC in summer is a completely different beast: hot and crowded and overwhelming.

I was there to visit friends who live in Queens, but they were kind enough to take me into Manhattan to do a little exploring.  One of my friends works in the financial district, and I followed him around like a lost puppy, gaping at the shiny glass skyscrapers and all of the people scurrying about in crisp business suits.

She's there.  I promise you she's there.

She’s there. I promise you she’s there.

There are times when I simply have to accept being a complete tourist[1].  Anytime I visit New York is one of them.  The city towers over me, and I feel a sort of small I don’t think I would ever get used to.  But there is no denying New York is an amazing place to visit, and I look forward to living near it in the future[2].

On this visit, I was finally able to see the Statue of Liberty for the first time in my life, albeit from quite some distance.  We also made a stop at the Rockefeller Center, at which I overenthusiastically had my picture taken at the Indonesian flag, much to the bemusement of the other tourists around me.


Look!  My other home! 

I also finally accomplished a life-long dream, and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Met has one copy of my favorite Van Gogh paintings, “Wheat Field with Sunflowers,[3]” and I foolishly did a little dance when I finally found it after wandering through the Met’s numerous rooms.  There is also a huge section on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and I was thrilled to see Indonesian art represented amongst the many other pieces.

There was a time when I dreamed of living in New York City, and while I now wonder if I am too much a farm girl to live in the big city, I still love the chance to pop in and say hello.

[1] This is something I am actually very bad at.  Because I have rarely traveled without also living in a place (I studied abroad in London, and I now live in Indonesia), fleeting visits to unfamiliar countries and cities always feels very strange, and it has taken me some time to embrace that role and take advantages it presents.

[2] After my second grant in Indonesia, I will be attending Stony Brook University for Applied Linguistics, thereby living much closer to NYC than I ever have before.

[3] The other copy is in the National Art Gallery in London.  I can now happily say that I have seen both copies now—check that off the bucket list.

Summer Travels Volume IV: Ithaca, New York

As part of my summer travels, I invariably had to make a stop in Ithaca, to visit professors and friends who still live in the area.

I don’t think of Ithaca as a place I “visit.” For four years, I spend a majority of my time living, learning, volunteering, working, and growing both within this small city and on IC’s campus on the edge of Ithaca City proper. Ithaca feels like a place I should not be visiting, but returning home to. And yet, this is what it has become.

It has become a place where I notice change with part excitement, and part bitterness. (There are trees again in the Commons, but they are tiny, new trees, whom have yet to write their story on the Commons, not the drooping cherry trees I remember, which were chopped down for the new construction). It has become a place I think I know, but which is no longer quite the same (the stretch of restaurants remains, but many of the restaurants I knew and loved are gone now, replaced by new places which I’m sure are also wonderful, but which are not mine).

And I am no longer the same person I was when I studied there. Just a year out of college, my relationship with everything that was everyday has changed.

And yet, it is still Ithaca. Sparkling water still tumbles over the waterfalls I have hiked by many times, and the used bookstores are still overflowing with yellowed paperbacks to tempt away my paycheck. And there are so many memories, tucked around every corner.

Ithaca will always be a part of my life, at least to some extent. A part of me will always be there, waiting for me with open arms and a scrutinizing eye, waiting to see how much I’ve changed, and willing to accept me even for whatever I have become.

Summer Travels Volume II: Washington D.C.

I was in D.C. twice within a two week period at the end of June and the beginning of July.  I went first in order to participate in the Pre Departure Orientation (PDO) for the 2015-16 Indonesian Fulbright ETA Cohort, and after a brief visit to North Carolina, I returned with friends to celebrate Independence Day in the Capital.

I’ve never had the opportunity to go to D.C., and so while I would have been excited for the PDO regardless of location, simply because I was thrilled to be meeting this year’s bunch of ETAs, I was unreasonably excited when I learned that we would also be in D.C.  I’ve actually been in a number of capital cities around the world (Ottawa, Paris, Jakarta, Singapore) and even lived for a semester in one (London), but had never actually gone to the capital of my own country.  

It felt strange, to be honest, to be a tourist in my own capital.  Throughout the entire summer, my visits to various places were defined by an essential peculiarity; after so much travel on the other side of the world, I expected America to feel inherently like home no matter where I found myself, which of course was not actually the case: America is just as varied as any other country, with distinct cultures wherever you go.  The truth is, I do not intimately know much of America, and should not have been surprised at myself when I had to look up the location of the White House: just because I am American, it does not mean I am familiar with a city I have never been in.  

During the PDO, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for sightseeing, but I did take the opportunity to walk up and down the Mall one afternoon, and pop over to see the White House.  

Though I’m embarrassed to admit it, if there hadn’t been tourists outside of the gates, I might have missed the White House altogether.  For my entire life, the White house has towered in my mind, a palace-sized, impressively white building that screams “AMERICA!”  It turns out the White House is just a really big white house; I’ve seen much more impressive houses for people far less well know than the President.  

That the White House was smaller than I expected it to be might honestly have been a bit disappointing, had not I overheard a conversation between a tourist and a security guard.  The tourist–who appeared to be from outside the U.S. based on the comparisons he was making to other capitals, though I cannot be sure–asked why the White House was not more heavily guarded by the military, the guard responded, “It’s not the President’s House.  It’s the People’s House, so we don’t want a heavy military presence, because we want the People to feel welcome.”  

America is far from perfect, but it is ideas like these that make me proud of the place where I was born.  The idea could potentially be problematic, and who’s to say the guard even believed what he was saying.  But that this idea can be expressed and potentially believed is a reassuring thought, for me at least.

The various memorials up and down the Mall were impressive and interesting (my personal favourite was the Lincoln Memorial, because as a child I was terribly unoriginal and Lincoln was my favorite of the U.S. Presidents), but perhaps the most memorable stop I made that day was to the Arlington Graveyard, and as part of that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I won’t pretend to be any kind of history or politics expert, and so I make no sweeping claims over the value or lack thereof as regards to conflict and war, but walking through row upon row of headstones, all numbered on the back and placed in labeled lots so that it is easier to locate individuals who died too soon… it was sad, and humbling, and overall an experience I am not sure I have fully processed yet.  

When I visited D.C. later with my friends, we forwent going from memorial to memorial, and instead spent our time in some of the various museums in D.C.  While I do have some problems with museums and the ways they have been operated throughout history, I have always loved them nonetheless.  While much of our time was spent in various art museums, we also explored the Museum of American History, where we were able to see the flag which inspired the national anthem, a very impressive flag indeed.

While much of what we saw in the various art museums was part of the permanent collections, there were a few temporary exhibits which I really loved.  In the National Gallery, there was an exhibit dedicated to Gustave Caillebotte entitled The Painter’s Eye, on display until October 4th, 2015.  Caillebotte is an impressionist painter, and while impressionism is by far my favorite style of art (call me cliche if you will, but I will love it nonetheless), I had never heard of him; walking through the exhibit, I saw painting after painting which I recognized from art textbooks I have perused in my spare time, but had never known the artist.  It was wonderful to have a name to out to some of my favorite paintings, and to be able to add him to my list of favorite artists.    

A pair of exhibits in the Freer Sackler Museum, The Peacock Room Comes to America and Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterson’s Filthy Lucre were absolutely fascinating.  James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room defines extravagance and wealth in my mind, and Darren Waterson’s re-interpretation of its excess was somehow simultaneously terrifying and therapeutic.   The Peacock Room will be on exhibit until January 3rd, 2016, and the REMIX will be on display until January 2nd, 2017.  

Perhaps my favorite exhibit was in the African American Art and History Museum: The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.  On display until November 1st 2016, this exhibit included a profusion of different pieces from various artists from all over Africa, some of which had been created specifically for this exhibition.  The variety of interpretations of the different levels presented in Dante’s Divine Comedy gave me much to think about.

Being in D.C. for Independence Day was fun and a little surreal.  4th of July celebrations in my small hometown are full of red, white, and blue patriotism, but they lack the flair which is invariably present in D.C.  I loved the parade and the broad representation it had of American culture; after spending almost a year explaining to people who had never met an American before that not all Americans look like, talk like, act like me, seeing much of that being celebrated was refreshing and exciting.  The fireworks at the end of the evening were the most impressive I’ve ever seen, and a wonderful end to my time in D.C.